Kobe Bryant's Tank is not on "E"Prior to an important game, Coach Bill Parcells once placed a gas can by the locker of one of his older players, thus asking a wordless but not so subtle question: "Do you have anything left in the tank?"
Before this season began it was only logical to speculate about how much Kobe Bryant had left in his tank. In 2010-11, Bryant was very productive and efficient when he was healthy--his per minute averages and his shooting percentages were comparable to the numbers he posted during his 2007-08 MVP campaign--but knee and ankle woes limited his effectiveness during the 2011 playoffs; Bryant is an "old" 33 because he is a 16 year veteran who has logged over 48,000 combined minutes (regular season and postseason), roughly the same number that Michael Jordan had tallied by the time he had transformed from "Air Jordan" to "Floor Jordan" as a 40 year old Washington Wizard. After the Dallas Mavericks swept Bryant's L.A. Lakers, I looked back at what Bryant accomplished from 2008-2010 when he led the Lakers to three straight Finals appearances and concluded that for the declining Lakers to be successful in 2011-12 they would need for Bryant to once again become a scoring machine, something that I considered to be unlikely not because Bryant's skills have declined but because his body seemed to be failing him.
The truncated and compacted 2012 season has only just begun, so there is still reason to question whether Bryant can sustain his current pace but the numbers--not "advanced stats" and not selected numbers taken out of context but simply the meaningful box score numbers--show that he is playing as well as he has played at any time in the past several years. Bryant ranks second in the league in scoring behind only LeBron James and Bryant's points per minute average is the highest it has been since he claimed back to back scoring titles in 2006 and 2007. The torn ligament in his right wrist has wreaked havoc on his three point shot but his overall field goal percentage is slightly above his career norm and his free throw percentage is only slightly below his career norm. Bryant just won the Western Conference Player of the Week award for games played between January 2 and January 8 and he has authored the two best individual scoring performances of the season: 39 points versus Golden State on January 6 and 48 points versus Phoenix on January 10. The Lakers won both of those games and they also beat Houston on January 3 when Bryant racked up 37 points, his third highest scoring total so far (and tied for the fourth highest scoring game in the NBA's young season). Meanwhile, Andrew Bynum's efficiency has plummeted after his much celebrated first ever 20-20 game and Bynum has shot just 12-31 from the field in the past three games while amassing two assists and coughing up 10 turnovers. We can safely discard any notions of the Lakers building their offense around Bynum any time soon.
Bryant's 48 point outburst versus the Suns was not only a vintage performance but, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, it is the highest scoring game by an NBA player who has played at least 16 seasons, surpassing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's 46 point game in 1985-86. Bryant's 324 points through the first 11 games of the season are the third most since 1985 by any player who is at least 33 years old but the two players ahead of him on the list--Bernard King in 1990 and Michael Jordan in 1996--both had logged fewer seasons and fewer minutes than Bryant (though, to be fair, King was the first player to come back from reconstructive ACL surgery to make the All-Star team, so his 1990 productivity is remarkable in its own right considering the full context).
Bryant's impeccable footwork and deadly midrange game force opposing teams to swarm him and this creates easy opportunities for Bynum, Pau Gasol and other Lakers. Unfortunately for the Lakers, Bryant's teammates are not taking full advantage of those opportunities to the extent that they did from 2008-2010, so this season's Lakers look a lot like the 2006 and 2007 squads that needed superhuman efforts from Bryant just to win games (the Lakers are 74-34 in the regular season when Bryant scores at least 40 points, including an 18-9 mark during the 2005-06 season when the Lakers went just 45-37 overall).
The long offseason (and perhaps the well publicized treatment that Bryant received in Germany) seems to have rejuvenated Bryant's legs and enabled him to regain some explosiveness: he once again can drive around defenders and finish with authority at the rim and he also has excellent elevation on his jump shot. It really would be interesting to see what Bryant could do on a nightly basis in this condition if he had a fully healthy wrist. As long as Bryant's wrist does not get worse and Bryant's legs stay healthy he can score enough and create enough open shots for his teammates to get the Lakers into the playoffs but if the Lakers are serious about winning at least one more championship during Bryant's career then they need to pull the trigger on a Bynum for Dwight Howard deal; Howard would be the perfect anchor for Coach Mike Brown's defense and Howard's already impressive field goal percentage and offensive rebounding rate would improve from playing alongside Bryant, much like Gasol's numbers in those categories went up after he joined the Lakers. Bynum is too injury-prone and too raw to be counted on as a championship team's defensive anchor and second offensive option; he ranked just sixth on the Lakers in playoff minutes for both the 2009 and 2010 championship teams, so it is wishful thinking to assume that he can maintain his health and be productive if the Lakers expect him to suddenly not only log heavy minutes but to do so as a key factor at both ends of the court.
The 31 year old Gasol may never completely emerge from the funk that he entered during last season's playoffs; Gasol was a good second option on the 2009 and 2010 championship teams but he seems content to be a third option now and that is not good enough if Bynum is then expected to be the second option. If the Lakers can keep Gasol around as a third option behind Bryant and Howard that would work well but if the Lakers have to ship Gasol out with Bynum to obtain Howard it would be worth it: Howard is a perfect second option for the current Lakers and then the Lakers can build around Howard after Bryant retires.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:55 AM